Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 5/13/2004
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Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
In my recent “Herding Cats” series of
e-Newsletters on Engineer personality types (see eN-031106,
I discussed how engineers are different from other people and the challenges
in “managing” them. In
my “Mis-Managers” series of e-Newsletters on Manager (or Mis-Manager)
personality types (see eN-040205,
I discussed how good managers can drive an organization forward to success,
but how bad managers (Mis-Managers) can poison the well and destroy an
organization’s effectiveness. To
be effective, engineers and managers must work well together, and
responsibility and accountability must be allocated appropriately, with
engineers and their managers each carrying out their respective roles. Problems arise when responsibilities are shifted
inappropriately from engineers to managers or vice-versa.
In their hallmark paper, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” .
William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass raise the issue of subordinates
inappropriately moving their problems (described as “Monkeys”) from
their own backs onto their managers’ backs, and how managers accept them,
albeit sometimes inadvertently. I
highly recommend this short and entertaining paper, and I plagiarize
generously from it here.
Their premise is that time is precious, that it must be well managed, and that
there are three kinds of management time: boss-imposed time
(that a manager must attend to), system-imposed time
(typically from peers, and also considered important), and self-imposed
time (used to do what the manager originates or wants to do).
Within self-imposed time is discretionary time
(the manager’s own time), and subordinate-imposed time (that
comes from interactions with subordinates).
Every person walks around with monkeys on their backs, representing the
problems and issues they have responsibility for.
When meeting with their boss, by means such as saying, “Boss,
we’ve got a problem”, the subordinate enables his/her monkey to
straddle both his/her and his boss’ backs.
If the boss then says, “Thanks for letting me know about this; let
me think about it and get back to you”, the monkey has now been
successfully transferred from the subordinate to the boss.
The subordinate walks away with one less monkey, and the boss walks
away with one more on his/her back. There
are many other ways to get monkeys to jump from a subordinate’s back to the
boss’ back. If every subordinate transfers one or two monkeys to the
boss, then the boss ends up carrying a huge load of other people’s monkeys,
and has little time to carry out boss-imposed tasks or system-imposed
tasks, much less to carry out self-imposed tasks. Subordinate-imposed tasks can consume a boss’ time,
and may leave subordinates with not enough to do.
Who’s working for whom? This
makes the boss ineffective (as he/she can’t handle all these monkeys), and
may leave the subordinates unfulfilled, as they can’t move forward while
they’re waiting for their boss to handle their monkeys. It’s also bad for the boss’ boss and peers, as their
problems are getting inadequate attention.
All around this is a distressing and unacceptable situation.
The solution is for the boss to get rid of subordinates’ monkeys by
transferring the initiative back to them and keeping it there.
They can do this by recognizing some of the rules governing the “Care
and Feeding of Monkeys”. These
Monkeys should be fed or shot.
Letting them starve to death will only waste more time on post-mortems
or attempted resurrections.
The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number the
boss has time to feed. It
shouldn’t take more than 5-15 minutes to feed a properly maintained monkey.
Monkeys should be fed by appointment only.
The boss shouldn’t have to hunt down starving monkeys to feed them on
a catch-as-catch-can basis.
Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone, not
by mail or email.
Every monkey should have an assigned next feeding time and degree
of initiative, never a vague or indefinite time.
Otherwise, the monkey will either starve to death or wind up on the
By following these rules, the boss can enlarge his/her discretionary time
by limiting subordinate-imposed time.
In doing so, the boss can and should then use a portion of this
newfound discretionary time to see to it that each subordinate actually
has the initiative and applies it (feeding the monkeys).
Further, the boss should use another portion of his/her increased discretionary
time to get and keep control of the timing and content of both boss-imposed
and system-imposed time. All
of these steps will increase the boss’ leverage and enable each hour spent
in managing management time to multiply without theoretical
For this to truly be effective, a good trusting relationship between the boss
and his/her subordinates is essential, and those subordinates must feel and be
empowered. This takes hard work
on the part of the boss, to establish true partnerships with his/her
subordinates, to help them develop their skills and capabilities, to
effectively delegate responsibilities, accountability, and decision making to
them, and to back them up on their decision-making and execution.
When a boss and his/her subordinates work effectively together,
following the “Monkey Management” rules, the resulting team
performance can be nothing short of astounding.
Title: “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”, by Oncken
Jr., William, Wass, Donald L., Covey, Stephen R., Harvard Business Review,
00178012, Nov/Dec99, Vol. 77, Issue 6.
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